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Roger Nicholson
Thursday, December 20 2012

The Gospel Online: Who Should Define Mormonism on Wikipedia?

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This article is a summarized version of a longer article “Mormonism and Wikipedia: The Church History That “Anyone Can Edit”,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Vol. 1 (2012), pp. 151-190

 word wiki

“The fact that this [Wikipedia] article has been stable for months suggests that other Mormons have found the evidence unassailable.”[1]

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.” [2] Quite literally, anyone who has a connection to the internet may choose to create or edit any article contained within Wikipedia’s vast collection of thousands of articles. So powerful is the lure of editing a popular encyclopedia that it has the ability to “induce people to work for free.” [3] Wikipedia addresses just about any subject imaginable, from the mundane and obscure to the topical and controversial. Self-proclaimed editors from all over the world voluntarily work together to shape and craft an article until it is acceptable to the majority. This process is known as collaborative editing.

Popular thinking dictates that if enough different people collaborate together on an article, that it will eventually approach a balanced and neutral state. In general, this philosophy tends to be effective on many Wikipedia articles. Errors which bring an article out of balance tend to be corrected given sufficient time, and the article naturally progresses toward a stable and neutral state. However, articles dealing with highly controversial subjects, such as the First Vision or polygamy, do not naturally tend to stabilize themselves over time. These types of articles become magnets for editors who have an agenda to push. Wikipedia becomes an attractive way for such editors to “publish” their opinions with immediate world-wide visibility.

Are Wikipedia Articles Neutral?

The goal of any Wikipedia article is to achieve a state of “neutral point-of-view” (NPOV) in each and every article. Neutrality, however, tends to reside in the eyes of the beholder. One editor’s view of “neutrality” may be appear to be blatant bias in the eyes of another editor.

Controversial subjects present a challenge to Wikipedia’s goal of “NPOV.” When believers and critics come together to craft an article about Joseph Smith, Jr., who ultimately defines what is “neutral?” Editors with polarized points-of-view sometimes attempt to impose their way of seeing things on an article by making controversial changes without consulting other editors first. The extended arguments that can take place over the wording in these articles can turn into what is known in Wikipedia as an “edit war.” A Wikipedia editor who wishes to deal with controversial subjects must have sufficient time and determination to persist in order to outlast their opponents.

Mormonism and Wikipedia

When one types “Joseph Smith” into Google, the first site to appear is the Church’s josephsmith.net website. The next result is Wikipedia’s “Joseph Smith” article. However, if one types in “Martin Harris,” “Oliver Cowdery,” “Golden plates,” or “First Vision,” the number one result is the Wikipedia article about these individuals. Thus whatever Wikipedia has to say about these subjects becomes the first thing that anyone is likely to read. This quality makes Wikipedia extremely attractive to both believers and critics who wish to promote their particular point-of-view in a forum that is highly likely to be seen by many. How often can an unpublished amateur guarantee that whatever they write will immediately be visible to thousands of people all over the world? It is as simple as adding your work to the Wikipedia article on the subject.

Unfortunately, such open access also encourages vandals to modify controversial articles. Anonymous editors posting from IP addresses regularly attack articles such as “Joseph Smith” in order to add ridiculous or profane modifications. Such vandalism is usually quickly spotted and corrected by other editors who monitor the article on their own Wikipedia “watch list.”Vandalism occurs with depressing regularity on articles such as “Book of Mormon,” “Mormon,” or “Joseph Smith,” with the zealous vandal often modifying the article to declare that Latter-day Saints are practitioners of a false religion, or that Joseph Smith was a “convicted con-man.” [4]

Wikipedia as a Credible Source

Given the diverse nature of the types of editors who may choose to work on an article, how credible might a Wikipedia article be? One never knows if an article is being edited by a scholarly expert on the subject, or by a young teenager in high school.

The inclusion of a subject in Wikipedia depends upon whether or not that subject is considered “notable.” And who defines the standard of notability? The very editors who come together to create the article in the first place.

However, for non-controversial subjects, Wikipedia can be surprisingly accurate and complete. Wikipedia is an extremely valuable resource for looking up references on a wide variety of subjects. Its uncontrolled nature, however, has caused it to be banned as a reference work by many academic institutions.

Collaborative Editing Between Believers and Critics

For subjects related to Mormonism, Wikipedia provides a unique environment in which believers, critics and impartial editors must collaborate with the goal of producing a written article. The discussions involved in these negotiations is a spirited and engaging as any found on a online message board in which critics and believers interact. Negotiation over the construction of a single sentence, or even the use of a single word, can take days to resolve. Edit wars can last for months, depending upon the tenacity of the individual editors involved. Often a consensus can be reached if all of the editors involved are willing to compromise. Sometimes, however, the “winner” of such battles is the editor who has the persistence to outlast the others.

One might assume that believers could simply add supporting references from LDS scholars to balance out critical ones. Unfortunately, LDS scholars are often reclassified as “LDS apologists” by critical editors. Sources such as the Maxwell Institute and any Church-sponsored publication are often classified by the Wikipedia community as “biased” and unacceptable by Wikipedia standards. Even when LDS sources are employed, critics will sometimes “cherry pick” citations which can be used to cast the Church in an unflattering light. Richard L. Bushman, whose own work Rough Stone Rolling is heavily employed as a Wikipedia reference in the “Joseph Smith” article, notes that the article “picks its way along from one little fact to another little fact, all of them ending up making Joseph Smith an ignoble character of some kind.” [5]

Despite Wikipedia’s standing rule that all articles should display a “neutral point-of-view,” those who are willing to devote a substantial amount of their time to editing and maintaining Wikipedia articles will persist in having their particular point-of-view dominate the articles in which they are interested. This is demonstrated on the Wikipedia article “Three Witnesses,” which clearly reflects the opinion of the dominant editor, an evangelical Christian professor of history. The article is structured and referenced in such a way as to discredit the witnesses. Most of the numerous positive references to the witnesses’ experience are minimized and ignored, while the opinions of critics are given precedence. This is ostensibly done to reflect “majority opinion” – the thinking being that if the majority of humanity is not Latter-day Saint, that any article should give precedence to the opinion of that majority. In the case of the Three Witnesses, however, the majority are not even aware of these events.


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